Preview: A golden theatrical opportunity

The Alchemist, Pleasance Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

Paul Coelho, author of the bestselling novel The Alchemist, is a wanted man: Warner Brothers wants to make a Hollywood epic out of his story of a shepherd boy, Santiago, who travels to Africa on a quest for gold; and theatre producers want to create a musical version.

Paul Coelho, author of the bestselling novel The Alchemist, is a wanted man: Warner Brothers wants to make a Hollywood epic out of his story of a shepherd boy, Santiago, who travels to Africa on a quest for gold; and theatre producers want to create a musical version.

Dominic Knutton, artistic director of the Cornish Theatre Collective, was pleasantly surprised, then, when, two years ago, Coelho gave his theatre company the first opportunity to adapt the story.

"I couldn't believe it when he said yes. He gave us, a tiny, impoverished Cornish theatre group, the exclusive rights to adapt a book that has sold millions of copies around the world. The experience has been like playing in a pub band and then going to No 1. Everyone's being paid for a change.

"Our first tour was to village halls in the south-west," Knutton remembers. "Then we took it to the Finborough Theatre in London where it rapidly sold out. Now we're doing a second tour."

According to its many fans, The Alchemist is a truly spiritual read. "You take your life in your hands when you start messing with material that people say has changed their lives," warns Knutton. He explains: "We keep it simple and stay close to the text - although Santiago is played by a woman, Maria Fernanda Guirao. The actors, including David Kershaw as the 200-year-old Alchemist, do everything themselves, from playing horses and sheep to recreating fighting hawks with aerial puppetry.

"At one point we had to work out a way to create four camels with five actors, no set and a budget of £50. We turned our staging blocks on their sides so they looked like camel's backs and invented props that looked like bundles of luggage but, when put on sticks, became camel heads. The result was that at one moment the actors were packing up their luggage, and at the next four camels appeared."

Pleasance Theatre, London N7 (020-7609 1800; www.pleasance.co.uk) 6 May to 19 June

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